Persilia Caton: By way of introduction to your practice, can you talk about your influences, and how they have inspired your current and ongoing work, specifically Cubes For Albers and LeWitt (cfaal) 2010 – 13?
Jessica Eaton: I have laid the cubes to rest for the time being. I will be publishing a book on those three years of results with Morel Books. The nature of the project begs me to revisit it, possibly for the rest of my life: the set up of it asks me to just keep going. The most obvious influences for that body of work I have given over in the title of the series. Josef Albers, of course, as a model for working through a theory of colour, but perhaps more importantly Sol LeWitt. I was particularly struck by one of his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. He speaks about reducing the subject to the simplest possible form, and reusing it so that the more abstract idea or concept can become the subject.
PC: It’s interesting to me that often when people speak or write of your work, the goal becomes to understand your process of how you make an image, instead of why you are making certain choices. It’s as if understanding the technical will shed light on the conceptual. Do you feel that the capacity or limits of photography is ‘the subject’ in your work, and is this inseparable from your process?
JE: Not necessarily. I’m interested in how a photograph can be made, and this will often fuel a project, but a lot of other concerns enter into that picture after that. It is really curious to me that people so badly want to know this information. Typically it feeds a frustration that would be settled if you just told a person it was Photoshop. As if your average person has any real understanding of what Photoshop is doing beyond a user-based level. It is also as if in Photoshop there is “ a way” of just simply pushing a button and achieving a picture. This is ridiculous: it’s a perfect example of the mostly false dichotomies the medium is loaded with.
“ There is some level of actual “ science” if you will, that I deal with by examining the nature of the medium – the inherent and unavoidable aspects that make something a photograph.”
PC: I agree, it’s a very frustrating question because it’s linked to the value of your art as understood through an antiquated view of labour as a hierarchy; manual (analogue) labour ranked above and separated from something created digitally. But, speaking of questions, when you are making work – whether an established series or experimenting with a new idea – and some of the layers of your process become visible as a result, are you generally aiming to reveal answers or ask questions?
JE: The answer to that is a bit of both. Ultimately I aim to make interesting pictures and I do so under the full understanding of their context in an art gallery. I am interested in science, particularly physics. To some extent the principles of the scientific method inform a studio process, but unlike science I am not bound, obligated or driven by a need to reveal a truth or create universal definitions.
There is some level of actual “ science” if you will, that I deal with by examining the nature of the medium – the inherent and unavoidable aspects that make something a photograph. And for this something to be a photograph it must deal with light. Even if you make a photograph completely without the real world, inside a computer (I am willing to call entirely digitally constructed pictures photographs) you still can only do so with the language that is light. You have to reiterate its behaviour. And even if you consciously do things that disobey the physical phenomena light exhibits, you are doing so in opposition and therefore informed by, and so still fundamentally trapped within, the laws of physics. Damned if you do damned if you don’t. There is simply no other way to ever understand or conceptualise something as photographic outside of physics. Second to light is time: time is second as it is largely our own construction.
When I speak about the scientific method within my practice, I mean so largely as to refer to a philosophy: a framework to contextualise doing and working through something. Hypothesising. Placing limitations and isolating variables. This combines many influences, from Sol LeWitt to the improvisational music strategies of John Zorn. Specifically the game pieces. In addition, the play between contingencies and certitude within photography is another point of interest.
Through exploring the ideas of perception and cognition I engage the metaphysical aspects of the work. A big premise of the colour separation work is that there is no such thing as a colour photograph. There in fact is no such thing as colour. And of course because of the multiple exposures and angles of view interacting, the images also play with time and space as we understand it. From there you can start to ask some very big questions about the nature of the universe and our ability to comprehend it.
PC: These expansive insights into your practice have really brought us back to what is at the heart of abstraction. I really appreciate thinking about your additive process of starting with the grey cubes and layering in colour in parallel to John Zorn’s controlled improvisation. Its a wonderful way of conceptualising the process of making and discovering through imposed constraints.
I recall from our previous conversations that you have an ongoing list of ideas you are waiting to test; as a way of wrapping up this conversation do you want to talk about a project or an idea that you are really excited about doing in the future?
JE: Within the cfaal series I am working with monochromatic subjects, and imposing colour through additive separation, affected by reflective values onto colour film. What I meant in my last response is that all colour photographs are black and white: there literally is no such thing as a colour photograph per se. There is only what we perceive as colour photographs, but in fact they are made with three black and white images. Colour film records three black and white images filtered through red, green and blue, when it is developed the silver in each black and white image is replaced by a dye which mixes to give us a full colour image. With digital you have RGB channels, which are black and white. The reason that different film stocks have had different colour qualities is because of different combinations of dyes used. Generally colour film technology has tried to reproduce the world as we see it, but this recording is not inherent to photography. As far as the photograph cares, there could have been any combination of dyes resulting in wildly different unworldly “ colour” photographs. They would be just as legitimate pictures.
For my next project I will be addressing this more specifically, working my way outside of being bound to colour film engineering. Switching colour film for black and white and my subject for full colour botanicals, I have started to make a series investigating a host of invented false colour systems. In addition to red, green and blue filtered information, this next series will also take into account electromagnetic energy not visible to the naked eye as with infrared and ultraviolet light.
Jessica Eaton began working with the tri-colour process in 2004. Her work prioritises the medium of photography and its ability to make images, rather than its supposed mirroring of the real world. Her images have been shown extensively in North America, as well as in group exhibitions in Europe and South Korea. Eaton’s images have been published in numerous publications including Wallpaper; Foam; Hunter and Cook; BlackFlash; Colour; Pyramid Power and Lay Flat 02: Meta, among others.
Persilia Caton, Curator of Public Programmes at The Photographers’ Gallery, worked with Jessica Eaton on two projects in 2011: a public installation of billboards in Montreal and a two-person exhibition entitled The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts with Jessica Eaton and Lucas Blalock, both for the CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto, Canada.